President Trump on Monday hosted the prime minister of Bulgaria, the latest in a string of Eastern European leaders who’ve found common ground with an unconventional American president looking to tap business opportunities and one-up his predecessor.
Seated close enough to whisper, Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov discussed the purchase of eight F-16 fighter jets from the U.S. and efforts to ease travel between the nations through visa reform.
“We’re gonna work on that problem,” Mr. Trump said as news cameras clicked away in the Oval Office.
The president’s stances on climate, multinational agreements and defense spending have struck a discordant note with Western European powers like France and Germany, yet he’s singing in tune with leaders from Central and Eastern Europe, many of whose nations were under Russian-sponsored communist dictatorships within living memory.
Besides Bulgaria, he’s welcomed leaders from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia to the White House this year, and he dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to Warsaw after hosting Polish President Andrzej Duda and his wife in June.
Analysts say Mr. Trump sees a business opportunity with European leaders who cherish America and felt ignored by President Barack Obama, yet risk falling under the influence of Russia or China. There’s also a natural kinship between these leaders’ styles and Mr. Trump’s own.
“They are nationalist — relative to Western Europe — and religious, and have a certain esprit de corps that springs from that,” said Peter Rough, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in D.C.
Once tucked behind the Iron Curtain, the people in these nations have fresh memories of the Cold War and relish their alliance with America. They view the U.S. as a protector, especially against Russia, in a way that bigger European powers might not.
“These leaders see the chance of entering the White House and having a photo-op with the U.S. president as a lifetime opportunity and a huge boost for domestic popularity, and so they are eager to play along [with Mr. Trump’s] pretenses for grandeur,” said Pavel Baev, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
He said Mr. Trump, meanwhile, gets a chance to perform the role of a world leader and command respect, without “giveaways or expenses” from the U.S. treasury.
“The relationship we have with Bulgaria has been very strong — great people,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Borissov.
Eric Stewart, president of the American-Central European Business Association (ACEBA), said central European nations, like the U.S., have an entrepreneurial spirit and are thriving spots for the tech industry and defense projects, as Mr. Trump pushes nations to spend at least 2% on defense as part of their commitment to NATO.
“Bulgaria commits to provide due consideration to proposals from U.S. defense companies who wish to compete in the Bulgarian market,” Mr. Trump and Mr. Borissov said in a joint statement.
Mr. Trump in June treated Mr. Duda to a flyover of F-35 jets after Poland agreed to a deal to purchase 32 of the planes. The leaders also agreed to move 1,000 U.S. troops Poland as a deterrent to Russia, continuing a buildup of forces in the region that began under Mr. Obama.
Mr. Trump is diverting from his predecessor, however, by seeking closer political and economic ties with central and eastern Europe. The Obama administration pivoted away from business with central Europe and toward Asia, according to Mr. Stewart.
“That was their plan and they were very open about that,” he said. “In that strategy, they went too far — with some of the countries, [they] even put sanctions on them. You didn’t have to leave them and treat them badly.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Trump hyped trade with Romanian President Klaus Ioannis and pushed American energy investments in place of natural gas from Russia.
The White House on Monday highlighted Bulgaria’s efforts to produce natural gas with Greece and U.S. plans to license the use of American nuclear fuel for the Kozloduy nuclear power plant.
“Bulgaria is traditionally one of the poorer countries in the region, but there’s tremendous potential for economic growth in partnership with the United States,” a senior administration official told reporters before the visit. “We are particularly enthusiastic about working in the energy sector. Bulgaria has tremendous potential here and tremendous investment potential for U.S. companies as it seeks to decrease its reliance on Russian energy and to diversify its energy sources.”
Some diplomats say closer ties with Eastern Europe must not come at the expense of cooperation with Europe’s traditional powers. Those divisions were on display earlier this year.
Mr. Trump was supposed to visit Denmark on the way home from Poland, though he canceled after the Danish prime minister called his interest in buying Greenland “absurd.” Mr. Trump then slammed Copenhagen for failing to meet its NATO obligation of spending 2% of GDP on defense. Poland is among eight of the 28 NATO countries that have met the standard.
Mr. Trump has continued to burnish his relationship with Mr. Duda — a populist who shares Mr. Trump’s skepticism of the European Union and presides over a surging economy ready to do business with U.S. investors.
Ukraine is a bit of an outlier in the president’s charm offensive. The administration argues it’s done far more for the country than the Obama administration, but Mr. Trump push to get its new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to cooperate with probes into Democrats and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden have put the Ukrainians in an awkward spot.
Mr. Trump in late July asked Mr. Zelensky, who had been seeking a White House visit, to look into unfounded claims that Ukraine is safeguarding a hacked Democratic National Committee server from 2016. The request is part of a House impeachment inquiry focused on Ukraine.
Critics say Mr. Trump risks sending a mixed message — touting U.S. manpower and energy investments to resist Moscow, even as he criticizes NATO allies, develops closer ties to strongman Vladimir Putin and calls for restoring Russia’s position in the G7 group of developed nations.
Mr. Rough said that’s just part of Mr. Trump’s negotiating style.
“He wants to pull all the levers of power and then enter negotiations with all the chips,” he said.